Low life

Riding back from Scotland with Ron Burgundy in the privy

When I'd finished, Ron shouted: 'Hey, make sure you wash your hands, you filthy animal!'

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

When the ticket collector asked to see my ticket, I took the opportunity to ask what time my connection left Birmingham New Street. ‘Are you travelling onwards with the Vag?’ he said. ‘Excuse me?’ I said. ‘The Vag! Virgin!’ he said, irritated by my ignorance. I laughed at him. His expression remained official. He touched the screen on his portable machine and presented me with a card printed with the information. Then I went to the lavatory, one of those spacious ones with a curved door that slides back with a hiss at the touch of a button.

As I lifted the seat, a voice said, ‘This is Ron Burgundy speaking. Welcome to the train throne, or, as the Brits call it, the privy.’ I looked around in surprise, trying to locate the loudspeaker. ‘Don’t worry,’ continued Ron, ‘this is only my voice in here with you. Please do not try to flush nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, minotaurs, velociraptors, junk mail or hopes and dreams down this toilet.’ When I’d finished, Ron shouted: ‘Hey, make sure you wash your hands, you filthy animal!’ I emerged with another pneumatic hiss of the door, amazed at the progress in our culture. Then I asked the prettiest solitary woman in the carriage if I was heading the right way for the buffet.

The buffet was courteous and efficient self-service. A man decked out in ‘Vag’ livery was on hand to make tea and coffee. Profoundly bored, he was resting his chin in his cupped hands. ‘Coffee, please,’ I said. ‘How would you like it?’ he said. ‘Like my women,’ I said. He sighed. He’d heard it a million times. ‘Black and strong?’ he said. ‘About 50 quid a time,’ I said. Wearily, he raised himself up from his resting place and started sparring with the coffee machine.

I took my Quavers coffee back to my table in the carriage. From Glasgow Central I’d been sharing it with two young lads, one of whom had a line of five-pointed stars, increasing in size, up his neck. These lads were knocking back first cans of strong lager and then, to my surprise, they shared a bottle of sparkling rosé between them. From time to time, the chap with the stars on his neck would look at me and say: ‘Heppy! Heppy! Heppy!’ in a parody of an upper-class English accent. Now they had gone or been magically transformed into the single neat figure of a middle-aged Chinese woman wearing a Tyrolean hat. She sat stock-still — her head bowed towards a book open in her lap — exuding a politeness and modesty that was so powerful I found it more intrusive than the lads’ noisy patter.

In my notebook with a cover illustration of a heap of Scrabble letters, I resumed my rough longhand sketch of the past three days. The views over Loch Lomond from Conic Hill once the mist had cleared. The terrifying prison warder at Inverary Gaol. Oysters in the Rogano, then gin in the Horseshoe bar. Lang’s bar in Paisley with the marble trough for spit and nostalgic pints of Tartan bitter and McEwan’s Export, which had been my introduction to beer 40 years before. The boozy last evening upstairs on the smoking terrace at the wonderful Ubiquitous Chip, a police helicopter hovering directly overhead, the noise from the rotors drowning conversation, and people looking up a little anxiously, remembering the Clutha Vaults.

The Chinese woman was trying to attract my attention with small hand movements. ‘What you write?’ she said, waggling an imaginary pen. I told her. ‘What you do for job?’ she said. I told her. ‘Which paper?’ she said. I told her. ‘What you write for them?’ she said. I told her. ‘Ah, Row Rife,’ she said, nodding with the satisfaction of a surfeited connoisseur, though plainly she’d never heard of it or The Spectator. Then she made me write it all down on a page torn from my notebook — to show her daughter, she said. ‘What do you do for a job?’ I said. ‘Cook,’ she said. In case I hadn’t understood, she mimed expertly sprinkling a handful of chopped herbs or spices around the inside perimeter of what looked like a huge cauldron.

At Carlisle a man in a buggy was helped to board and park his vehicle in the carriage. ‘If I fall asleep, would you wake me up at Wolverhampton?’ he said, looking at me. ‘Of course,’ I said. And with that he closed his eyes and immediately fell deeply asleep, precariously hanging half-out of his buggy. The Chinese lady returned her poised attention to the vertical lines of characters in her book. I took up my Biro and continued my reminiscence of my three days in Bonny Scotland. The southbound train sped smoothly on, while outside the window dusk was falling fast over the waterlogged fields of the Black Country.

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